Dear Brooklyn and Toronto

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty


(Note: This article is a translation of the original, which is in Japanese.)

My fifth season in the NBA has finally begun.

I’d like to share my thoughts today about Brooklyn, where I’ll be playing this season, and Toronto, where I played my last two seasons.

I feel that I have some kind of deep connection with Brooklyn. I came to the USA, the home of basketball, nine years ago — and so many milestones in my life have happened in this city. Walking along the streets of Brooklyn now, with fall in the air, special memories come rushing back to me. 

I was always hanging on the edge of a cliff, having never been in the opening day roster through five seasons. 

Yuta Watanabe

Four years ago, after graduating from George Washington University, I was brought in for workouts by various NBA teams. I was hopeful that one of them would be pick me in the NBA draft. The first place I worked out was here in Brooklyn.

I continued workouts with seven different teams, including the Washington Wizards and the Atlanta Hawks, but I really clicked with the Nets and was approached to join the team for the 2018 Summer League. That was the start of my NBA career.

If you look at the two photos below, you'll see that I was pretty skinny back then, lol.

Yuta Watanabe | Brooklyn Nets | Dear Brooklyn & Toronto | The Players’ Tribune
Left: ©Yasushi Kobayashi | Right: Mitchell Layton / Getty Images /

I remembered recently that I had a previous connection with this city, even before the Summer League. 

In March 2015, when I was a freshman, I played in the Atlantic 10 conference tournament. The venue that year was the Barclays Center. That was the first time I’d ever stepped out onto an NBA court. The following year I played in the same tournament, also in Brooklyn. It’s a cutthroat competition that’s over as soon as you lose. I still remember how frustrating it was to exit two years in a row from a tournament where only the champion can advance to the NCAA tournament.

Yuta Watanabe | Brooklyn Nets | Dear Brooklyn & Toronto | The Players’ Tribune
David Dow/Getty

And now I'll be playing in the city again.

In late August I’d already signed a contract with the team, but it was only a camp contract, not a full contract. With players being cut one by one, there was no guarantee that I’d survive until the start of the season.

I’ve played in the NBA for four seasons, but only ever on a camp contract. I honestly thought, Oh, is this all I'm capable of? I was frustrated with myself, not with the team.

Having never been on an opening day roster through five seasons, I’ve always felt like I’ve been hanging on the edge of a cliff. And I had to survive the camp first, otherwise there was no next step.

I thought, I’ll have to start all over again ... I’ll have to climb back up from the bottom.

I was pretty worried because I’d had a string of injuries. From June to September I would go days without practicing. I can say this now, but there were times when I lost confidence that I would even make the opening day roster. And I thought about how there are so many players who never even get invited to camp, but I had that chance again this year. I had to be grateful for that.

Players were leaving one after another, but I fought my way through to the final preseason game, chasing my dream of becoming a key player on one of the NBA’s best teams.

Yuta Watanabe | Brooklyn Nets | Dear Brooklyn & Toronto | The Players’ Tribune
Sarah Stier/Getty

Then, just before the season opener, I was officially told by general manager Sean Marks that I’d been selected as one of the 15 players on the opening day roster. I thanked him for the opportunity.

He told me, “Yuta, you earned it.”

The roster does not necessarily have to be 15 players. With a star-studded team like the Nets it could be as few as 14 — but the reason they kept me on was because they knew I would have a role to play this season. The GM’s words had convinced me of this, and I felt both relief at having survived training camp and joy at having my abilities recognized.

But I had to switch off this way of thinking.

With the season already started and my contract not guaranteed, I'm still hanging on the edge — even though I’m on the roster. So I’m determined not to waste a single second and keep fighting my way through this season.

Toronto has become unforgettable for me.

Yuta Watanabe

The day after this article is published, the 21st of October, there is a game that has a special meaning for me. It’s the second game of the season and is at home against the Toronto Raptors, the team I played for last two seasons.

I loved Toronto. It was a big city, but also had a peacefulness. It was wonderful, there were lakes and lots of natural beauty, with a real sense of calm. The most surprising thing to me was that I made friends in Toronto who had no connection to basketball, whereas before I’d never really made friends outside of the sport.

I was with the team for two seasons, but I was based in Florida for the first year because of Covid. So I only lived in Toronto for a single season. I’ll never forget my first visit to Toronto in my second year. When I was walking around the city I was surprised to hear so many people calling, “Yuta!” I was happy that so many people had seen me play and were supporting me.

The fans in Toronto are very passionate, and even after I left the team, many people still sent me kind messages through social media. Toronto has become unforgettable for me, both the people and the city. I am sure I’ll continue to visit every year, and I’d like to take this opportunity to say thank you.

Thank you so much to the people of Toronto.

But ... from now on the Raptors are our opponents. Even though they’re my former teammates and they know me, when it comes to the game I can’t hold back and will play to win. The Nets have some of the best scorers in the NBA, including Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, and I am guessing that the Raptors will play a special defense against them. I can’t say for sure, but when I played against the Nets last season, I played a special defense against them too. The Raptors change their tactics a lot during a game, so I’m looking forward to seeing what they’ll try and I’ll do my best to beat them.

Yuta Watanabe | Brooklyn Nets | Dear Brooklyn & Toronto | The Players’ Tribune
Scott Audette/Getty

There's something I always try and remember on my journey:

Only 450 people in the whole entire world play in the NBA, the pinnacle of basketball.

With a global pool of 450 million basketball players, 450 people is only 0.0001% of that.

It is by far the most difficult league to get into, and some say it’s even more difficult to survive in: Most NBA careers are said to last just two to three years. I have been on the edge of the cliff every season and have been near the bottom of the roster, but the fact that I’ve been one of the select 450 for five years … I’m very proud of that.

Regardless of whether I am a Japanese player or not, I am proud that the dream of a little kid who once watched the NBA on TV and thought, I wish I could play on that stage, too, has been coming true for five years.

As a member of the Nets, the most important thing for me now is to show the team what I can do. It’s important for me to find my role. The Nets are a team of superstars. But I’m sure that there is a role on this team that I can succeed in and help win us games. I want to pursue that during the season — just like I did in the preseason — and be the player they need me to be.

Yuta Watanabe | Brooklyn Nets | Dear Brooklyn & Toronto | The Players’ Tribune
Anadolu Agency via Getty

I’m back in Brooklyn after 4 years.

It’s been about a month and a half since I signed the camp contract and moved to this city. It’s a great place to live, and when I come back after being away, I think, Ah, I’m home.

I particularly love the DUMBO neighborhood in Brooklyn. I go there to eat or just walk around when I need a break. It’s sandwiched between two beautiful bridges, the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge, with a view of Manhattan just across the river. The redeveloped cobblestone and red-brick buildings give the area a great vibe. I haven’t been able to get out and walk around much yet, but once I get to know Brooklyn better, I’m sure I'll fall in love with the city even more.

I want to make the most of every day I have in the NBA so that I can continue to work hard right until the end of the season. And when people pass by me, I hope they will call, “Yuta!”